Deep Dive into Jesus' Prodigal Story Part 2: A Relationship is Broken, Not a Law

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Once we understand the culture of Jesus' day, we have a greater awareness of the impact His story of the prodigal son had on His audience.

The original audience for this parable

Don't forget who Jesus was addressing in the crowd that day. There were 2 different groups of people gathered. Look at Luke 15:1

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable. Luke 15:1-3 

There were the Pharisees and Scribes, and the sinners or "tax collectors."

The Pharisees and Scribes were the "righteous" rulers of Jewish community. They didn't mix with sinners, of whom tax collectors might have been the most despised. Bailey sheds light on why the people hated tax collectors--they were far worse than our IRS! 

Here's what he said, "During the time of Jesus, tax collectors were naturally seen as 'sinners'. When any ethnic community is forcibly incorporated into someone else's empire tax collectors are inevitably despised intensely. But the Roman Empire presented a special problem. It collected taxes through "tax farmers." An individual would buy from the rulers the right to collect taxes in a certain area. That person was then able for the most part to set his own rates and exact whatever he could. He was bound by contract to deliver a certain sum to the authorities. The rest was his. These "tax farmers" were often Gentiles."

So, Jesus taught his parables in Luke 15 to an audience of righteous rulers and sinners. Keep this in mind as we continue our spelunking.

The Younger Son, a.k.a. "the sinner"

We established in the previous post that the son's request itself was outrageous. In essence, the prodigal son is anxious for his father to die. He is driven by selfishness. With complete disregard for his community-centric, honor/shame, patriarchal culture, the son thinks only of himself. He has no regard for how his request might have been received by his father.

Nor does he concern himself with the damage he's doing to his family. Listen to what Bailey tells us about how a family's wealth was stored, 

"The wealth of a village family is not held in stocks, bonds or savings accounts. Rather it is in a cluster of homes, in animals, and in land. To suddenly lose one third (the younger son's share) of their total wealth would mean a staggering loss to the entire family clan. The parable specifically states that the prodigal settled his affairs in a few days. This means that he liquidated his assets in a hurry, which in turn indicates a 'sale at any price.' The accumulated economic gains of generations would be lost in a few days. In the East where days were sometimes spent in bargaining over the smallest transaction, the man who sells in a hurry sells cheaply. The younger son is indifferent to all of these ramifications." 

A Relationship is Broken, Not a Law

While the younger son certainly went against the unwritten laws of his culture, he didn't necessarily break any written law. He was entitled to his portion of his father's estate. And while it was unheard of to take that portion while the father lived, it was not illegal. 

It simply was not done.

I'm about to ask you a question that I know you know the answer to, 

Can you imagine how the father felt?

Have you ever been undone by a son or daughter?

Have you ever heard words that can never be retracted?

Have you ever been diminished to the accumulation of your material wealth?

Has your son or daughter ever taken advantage of you?

Have they ever embarrassed you in front of your extended family or community?

You know what Jesus knew, (because He was the father in this story) that the son (sinner) didn't just break the rules, he broke His heart.

Sin is more than disobedience, sin is rejection of God's love and grace

John Wesley defined sin as a willful and intentional turning away from God's will and a rejection of His love and grace.

I love how his mother Sussanah Wesley gave John insight on how to decide what behavior to avoid in order not to sin. This is what she wrote in a letter to John when he was 22 years old,

"Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself."Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)

When the prodigal son requested his portion, cashed it out in a hurry and left his home, he left behind a father who was heart-broken, a family that was undone, and a brother who was bitter.

The prodigal son severed every relationship he'd ever held dear without a thought or worry over how that affected the lives of those he left behind.

If there's one thing I've learned through the years, it is this:

Sin is selfish

When I choose to reject God, I'm driven by my own selfish motives. 

When people I love choose to reject me, they are driven by their own selfish motives. 

When confronted about my sin, I want to say--"This is about me, not you!" When I get frustrated and confront the people I love with their sin, they shout the same.

Prodigal defined

We've redefined the prodigal today. I looked up the definition and it simply means spending money or resources freely or recklessly; wastefully extravagant. 

The prodigal son got his name, not for rejecting his father but rather for wasting his father's resources on extravagant and reckless living.

The point of this story is not only that the son behaved in a way that shamed his father (we will discuss later how the older brother did this as well), but that he took the precious resources that were accumulated by the faithful generations before him, and by his father who'd worked hard for years; resources that rightfully belonged to his father and wasted them.

So there's rejection...


precious resources wasted...

all leading to despair.

Perhaps one of the hardest things about finding yourself in the father's sandals when you read this story, is knowing about that despair.

When our daughter left us at 18 years old, I told Tom about a recurring dream. Night after night I dreamt that a large locomotive was barreling down the tracks (a half mile from our home), and that our daughter was running full speed toward the tracks. She was completely unaware of the train; laughing as she bounced along. My tears and anguish repulsed her and she ignored my desperate pleas for her to stop. 

I always woke up before the crash. And each day I lived in the shadow of the inevitable disaster.

As the parent of a prodigal (my definition being: someone who's left you behind to do life on their terms regardless of how it breaks your heart), you know what it's like to live the way God lives; grieving both what you're missing out on today, and what's going to hurt tomorrow. 





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